Polygon Wood – Black Watch Corner & Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Pugh Evans V.C.

Black Watch Corner can be found at the south western corner of Polygon Wood, the memorial that stands there remembering the men of the Black Watch who died in the Great War.

Before we continue, do not be confused by the title of this post.

Apart from location, Black Watch Corner & Lieutenant Colonel Evans have nothing to do with each other per se; we shall come to the Lieutenant Colonel at the end of the post.

On 11th November 1914 the Germans began their final attempt to break through the British lines in front of the city of Ypres.

A massive artillery bombardment rained down on the British trenches for two and a half hours before, at 8.00 a.m., in the mist and rain, the Germans attacked along a nine mile front, from Messines in the south to Reutel (a few hundred yards to the east of Polygon Wood, the southern edge of which is on the left in this shot, and in the background of the shot below) in the north.

Both sides were exhausted after weeks of fierce fighting, and along most of the attack the British defences held firm.

Looking east; follow that road across the motorway for no more than a mile and you would find yourself at the Menin Road.

Slightly confusing map (south is at the top) of the 1914 action.

However in the area south of Polygon Wood, where the German attackers outnumbered the British defenders by three to one, the British line was breached as the Germans, bayonets fixed, appeared out of the mist.

As the British retreated, artillery and isolated strongpoints kept the Germans under heavy fire, preventing reinforcements from reaching them, and slowly the momentum began to drain from the attack.

At the south west corner of Polygon Wood, just an hour before the German attack, Royal Engineers had completed a strongpoint which was now manned by forty men of the Black Watch.  Consisting of nothing much more than a trench and some strands of barbed wire, the position nonetheless proved strong enough to protect the men from German artillery, and the concerted fire from within proved too much for the attacking German infantry, who finally broke; it was now their turn to retreat.

Which they did, into Nonne Bosschen woods (the action became known as the Battle of Nonne Bosschen), but when a British counterattack then pushed them further back, out of the woods, the battle, to all intents and purposes, came to an end.

It was the last major offensive of the First Battle of Ypres by the Germans, although a number of minor attacks would take place throughout the rest of November, but the real danger to the city, as winter took hold, was over.

This corner of the wood was later named Black Watch Corner in recognition of the role the regiment played in halting the German advance.

Looking north east through Polygon Wood from Black Watch Corner, the New Zealand Memorial in Buttes New British Cemetery just visible in the far distance.  Now, if you were to follow the southern edge of Polygon Wood east (right), and once you got to the end of the wood you were to continue along the road for another five hundred yards,…

…you would come to the Reutelbos, and this sign, part of which says, verbatim, ‘This private wood is called the Reutel Wood. It lies in a valley and is special because it remained untouched after the war. Remains of bunkers and craters can still be found here.  During the winter of 1914-15 French and German soldiers faced each other here less than 40 metres. After being taken by the Germans, the Flandern 1 Wilhelm Stellung was built on the current southwestern edge of the wood. On 4th October 1917, it was captured by the British 21st Division.’  You would also have come too far, as, in the field just before the Reutelbos, there is a bunker,…

…and it is highly probable that this very bunker saw one of the actions that gained Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Pugh Evans, pictured, the Victoria Cross.  Evans had joined the army in 1899 as a 2nd Lieutenant with, by pure coincidence, the Black Watch, seeing action in the Boer War and then in India.  A seemingly typical example of the much-maligned pre-war officer class, from a wealthy family and Eton educated, Evans proved to be anything but.  His war started as a staff officer at the War Office, he spent a short time towards the end of 1914 as an observer with the R.F.C. before returning to the Black Watch in December 1914.  He won a D.S.O. at Hooge in June 1915 for his coolness under heavy fire, spent 1916 on the staff of 16th Division, before becoming C.O. of the 1st Lincolnshires in March 1917.

Eight days after the Australians captured Polygon Wood, the next phase of the Third Battle of Ypres began.  The Battle of Broodseinde took place on 4th October 1917 and it was during this action that Evans won his V.C.  His citation reads as follows: ‘For conspicuous bravery and leadership Lt.Co. Evans took his Battalion in perfect order through a terrific enemy barrage, personally formed up all units and led them to the assault. While a strong machine gun emplacement [the bunker pictured above – MF] was causing casualties and the troops were working round the flank Lt.Col. Evans rushed at it himself and by firing his revolver through the loophole, forced the garrison to capitulate. After capturing the first objective he was severely wounded in the shoulder, but refused to be bandaged and reformed the troops pointed out all future objectives, and again led his battalion forward. Again badly wounded he nevertheless continued to command until the second objective was won, and after consolidation, collapsed from loss of blood. As there were numerous casualties he refused assistance and by his own efforts ultimately reached the dressing station. His example of cool bravery stimulated in all ranks the highest valour and determination to win.’

Although seriously wounded, Evans returned to action early in 1918, assuming command of 1st Black Watch, and gaining a bar to his D.S.O. at Givenchy in April (somewhere along the way he had also picked up a Crois de Guerre), and in May 1919 he was appointed CMG for his leadership of 14th Brigade during the last hundred days of the war as the Allies advanced to victory.

Not bad for a staff officer.

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